Shenandoah Valley 1864 Cedar Creek: "One of the most daring and brilliant attacks recorded in history"?

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Jun 27, 2017
Interesting question.

I, however, see little evidence that Sheridan's absence effected the outcome of the morning attack. He knew that Early was back at Fisher's Hill, however, he was not worried about Early attacking enough for him to cancel his trip to Washington on October 15th. Therefore, I think Sheridan would have been as surprised as Wright on the morning of the 19th. Further, I see no evidence that Early was aware of Sheridan's absence; so I do not see how that could have effected his planning.

I still agree with @JSylvester that Early's plan up to the Fatal Halt was "incomparably brilliant," and I believe Wright's response was excellent considering the circumstances. He coordinated as good a defense as can be expected, bravely led troops into battle himself despite being wounded, and even started regrouping his troops north of Middletown before Sheridan arrived back on the field. If anything, I think Sheridan's trip to Washington was a stroke of luck. I do believe his timely arrival back to the battlefield on the 19th did help rally and reinvigorate his army and if he had not gone to Washington that would not have happened.

I also agree with @7thWisconsin about Sheridan; he did understand war. However, I believe Sheridan made a mistake going to Washington on the 15th. After "The Burning," there was a flurry of communications between Grant, the leaders in Washington, and Sheridan. Grant had requested that Sheridan return part of his army to Petersburg. On the 10th Sheridan moved his army north, down the Valley through Strasburg toward Middletown. He set the 8th and 19th Corps into camp along the high ground above the Cedar Creek and ordered the 6th Corps to the Manassas Gap railroad to start their return to Petersburg. Tom's Brook happened that day so he figured only weak Cavalry was following him.

The morning of the 13th though, he received communications that Grant wanted him to threaten the Virginia Central Railroad and he should move towards Charlottesville, VA. Believing he would need the 6th Corps for that, he sent an order to Wright directing him to return. He still didn't know that Early had followed him north and had occupied Fisher's Hill and sent Gordon to Hupp's Hill on the 12th. Gordon attacked on the 13th though and Thoburn's 8th Corps Division engaged them in the battle of Hupp's Hill. Sheridan should have known then not to go. On the 15th Custer and Merritt's Cavalry and Emory's 19th Corps Divisions all engaged in reconnaissance and confirmed that Early was at Fisher's Hill. Despite this, he still decided to head to Washington. Then on the 16th Early had his signalmen flag a fake message indicating Longstreet was reinforcing Early. Wright intercepted it and sent that to Sheridan who was at Front Royal by then. Yet, instead of returning to take command of his army, he messaged with Washington who told him Longstreet was still on Petersburg, but Kershaw might be gone. Halleck told Sheridan he didn't need to come to Washington, but all Sheridan did was sent Merritt back to reinforce Wright and continue on.

I think "what if's" can be fun, but we will never really know. I think all this evidence supports an argument that Sheridan would have been just as surprised as Wright, if not more so (Wright was more concerned about the fake signal than Sheridan was), and that the Union response would not have been "quicker and more effective" had he been on the field. It seems clear to me that he was not worried that Early was a serious threat, therefore I believe the morning probably would have gone pretty much just as it had under Wright. And without the added effect of him riding down and rallying fleeing troops, I think the day could have gone worse had he been there? I think Sheridan should be criticized for leaving for Washington on the 15th with overwhelming evidence that Early was near, being aggressive (Hupp's Hill), and probably being reinforced by a Division at the least.
Here is my essential point. If Sheridan is a better commander that his subordinates, then is it not reasonable to assume that when the attack does take place his responses will be better and the attack less successful than in actual fact.

In actual fact Sheridan returns and turns abject defeat into victory. If he is there from the beginning does he turn temporary Southern advances into a complete disaster. Remember he took charge of a defeated and totally disorganized army and rallied it to return to battle and defeat the opponent. How much better could he have done if he had been on hand from the initial onslaught?
 

Jimbo_Poke

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Jan 28, 2015
The Army of the Shenedoah knew they greatly outnumbered Early's forces correct? I wonder if say the balance of forces was more balanced if they AotS would have camped in such an exposed manner. Point is one of the factors that ended up dooming the assault is also one factor that likely allowed for the initial success. The result of the morning are impressive, but the planning came up just short by not fully considering just how far they would have to go. Many Rebs would pay for that in the second half. This is why I wouldn't place it among the top assaults as far as planning goes. Mahomes and Hampton and their men routing a good chunk of the 2nd Corps at Reams Station is an assault I was always impressed by.
 
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51st Georgia

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May 31, 2011
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Simms Brigade = 51st Georgia, so thank you OP for this information

EDIT: Also I just checked this Wert book out on Amazon and its only $2.99 currently if you own a Kindle.
 

LCYingling3rd

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Joined
Apr 25, 2021
Here is my essential point. If Sheridan is a better commander that his subordinates, then is it not reasonable to assume that when the attack does take place his responses will be better and the attack less successful than in actual fact.

In actual fact Sheridan returns and turns abject defeat into victory. If he is there from the beginning does he turn temporary Southern advances into a complete disaster. Remember he took charge of a defeated and totally disorganized army and rallied it to return to battle and defeat the opponent. How much better could he have done if he had been on hand from the initial onslaught?
Thank you for such a thoughtful response.

Where I disagree is with your statement, "Remember, he took charge of a defeated and totally disorganized army and rallied it to return to battle and defeat the opponent." I don't believe the historical record supports that statement. Yes, some elements of the 8th Corps were certainly on the road to Winchester, however, Wright had already rallied the majority of the 6th, 19th, and some elements of the 8th Corps north of town by the time Sheridan arrived. Sheridan's Army was not "defeated and totally disorganized." Getty's Division of the 6th Corps bravely held off five assaults by Confederates and endured a nearly twenty minute cannonade by thirty of Carter's cannon for nearly an hour-and-a-half. They made an organized, fighting retreat from their position on the Cemetery hill, stopping to return fire as they retreated. Getty then turned his Division and formed line of battle north of town where the disorganized but not routed army was regrouping. Wright had already ordered Alfred Torbert to position Merritt's Trooper's on the Union left at about 9:00 am. They had dismounted and had already begun engaging Confederates before Sheridan's arrival.

I totally agree with you that Sheridan was a better general than Wright. I do believe, however, Wright did not get credit he deserved at Cedar Creek. He did an excellent job despite all the circumstances and being wounded. There is no doubt in my mind that Sheridan inspired his army and was instrumental in organizing the counter-attack. However, I see no evidence that Sheridan would not have been just as surprised by Earl's attack as Wright. And I don't see how he could have done more than Wright did in the morning. Like I said in my earlier post, Sheridan knew Early had attacked at Hupp's Hill, and he knew Early's entire army, reinforced by Kershaw of Longstreet's Corps, was as close as Fisher's Hill before he left on the 15th. Despite all of that, he still did not think Early would attack and decided to leave. That is poor judgement to me? Maybe you are right and he would have done better, but that is just speculation.
 

lelliott19

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What's more, didn't some of them ford the creek, which would have left them with wet clothes in October? Anyone who's done the Cedar Creek reenactments knows how cold it can get there at night that time of year. I can't imagine standing outside in wet clothes all night and being expected to fight all day afterwards.
Yes, Gordon's and Kershaw's Divisions both forded Cedar Creek at different places --- but not until the morning of October 19. So no one had to wear wet clothes overnight.

Kershaw's division consisted of four brigades numbering around 350-550 each:
  • Goggin's SC (Formerly Kershaw's)
  • Simms GA (Formerly Semmes/Bryan's)
  • Humphries MS (Formerly Barksdale's)
  • Wofford's GA (Wofford himself was absent)
In the pre-dawn hours, Kershaw's men forded Cedar Creek at Bowman's Mill Ford [not to be confused with Bowman's Ford which is the ford used by part of Gordon's division.] After crossing, the Pike was to their left and the unfinished breastworks of the 9th WV to their right. Thoburn's division of the Union Ninth Corps with Brewerton's Battery B, 5th US Artillery and Munk's 1st PA Reserve Arty directly in their front.

On the flat immediately opposite the ford, they deployed into line of battle in the order in which they crossed. Wofford's brigade was last in line. Goggin deployed to the left; Simms to the center; and Humphries to the right. These three brigades did not wait for Wofford's brigade to cross and deploy before getting off.
 

wausaubob

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Denver, CO
Thank you for such a thoughtful response.

Where I disagree is with your statement, "Remember, he took charge of a defeated and totally disorganized army and rallied it to return to battle and defeat the opponent." I don't believe the historical record supports that statement. Yes, some elements of the 8th Corps were certainly on the road to Winchester, however, Wright had already rallied the majority of the 6th, 19th, and some elements of the 8th Corps north of town by the time Sheridan arrived. Sheridan's Army was not "defeated and totally disorganized." Getty's Division of the 6th Corps bravely held off five assaults by Confederates and endured a nearly twenty minute cannonade by thirty of Carter's cannon for nearly an hour-and-a-half. They made an organized, fighting retreat from their position on the Cemetery hill, stopping to return fire as they retreated. Getty then turned his Division and formed line of battle north of town where the disorganized but not routed army was regrouping. Wright had already ordered Alfred Torbert to position Merritt's Trooper's on the Union left at about 9:00 am. They had dismounted and had already begun engaging Confederates before Sheridan's arrival.

I totally agree with you that Sheridan was a better general than Wright. I do believe, however, Wright did not get credit he deserved at Cedar Creek. He did an excellent job despite all the circumstances and being wounded. There is no doubt in my mind that Sheridan inspired his army and was instrumental in organizing the counter-attack. However, I see no evidence that Sheridan would not have been just as surprised by Earl's attack as Wright. And I don't see how he could have done more than Wright did in the morning. Like I said in my earlier post, Sheridan knew Early had attacked at Hupp's Hill, and he knew Early's entire army, reinforced by Kershaw of Longstreet's Corps, was as close as Fisher's Hill before he left on the 15th. Despite all of that, he still did not think Early would attack and decided to leave. That is poor judgement to me? Maybe you are right and he would have done better, but that is just speculation.
The opinion of US high command was probably similar. Because Wright's VI corp became the shock troops that broke through the Petersberg lines. And Sheridan too preferred the VI corp to Warren's Vth corp, which was not good for the end of Warren's career.
 
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